Syria tops Tillerson's agenda for first official visit

by DR. PETER BROOKES April 17, 2017

The U.S. military strike on Syria last week has certainly strengthened the hand of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first official visit to Moscow - arguably his most critical overseas mission since taking charge at Foggy Bottom.

There won't be a lot of toothy smiles or back-slaps from his Russian counterparts, who may know Tillerson from his Exxon- Mobil days. But these Moscow meetings provide a chance for some much-needed straight talk between the two sides.

Syria, of course, will be front and center.

Naturally, the Russians aren't happy at the American slap at its ally, in the form of U.S. warships raining down Tomahawk cruise missiles on the regime's air force after Damascus' criminal gassing last week of its own people with the chemical weapon, sarin.

The whole incident leaves Moscow with plenty of egg on its mug.

For example, it brokered (for Damascus) a U.N. agreement on the removal and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons after the regime was first accused of a sarin nerve agent attack in 2013.

More troubling, did Moscow know about Damascus' post-agreement possession and/or production of banned sarin gas? Or worse yet, did the Russians turn a blind eye to the Syrians' potential use of prohibited chemical weapons as some have openly wondered?

Then there's the U.S. cruise missile strike. Despite a reported hour notice from Washington (according to CNN), Moscow couldn't defend - or didn't try - the Shayrat airfield with its top-notch air defenses (such as its S-400 surface to air missiles).

What happened there?

You're really not much of a pal if you let your partner (in this case Syria) absorb a body blow from an unfriendly opponent (America) that has in the past called for your bud (that would be President Bashar Assad) to be pushed from power.

Perception matters.

With this as the backdrop, Tillerson will likely lobby Russia to do more to end the six-plus-years long Syrian civil war that has taken as many as half a million lives and created an historic displaced persons and refugee crisis.

He may also advocate for greater cooperation with Russia on working against our mutual enemy in the Islamic State and terrorism more broadly, such as al-Qaeda, both of which have previously hit the motherland.

While Russia can certainly agree on ending the bloody Syrian conflict and battling Islamist terrorism, it won't likely sign onto ousting its client in Damascus which has - and will - bring Moscow "bennies" in the region.

Russia doesn't want to lose its naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea, nor its new air base at Latakia - which provides power projection into the Middle East. Damascus has been a longtime buyer of Moscow's weapons, too.

Equally important, Russia lost a lot of its clout in the Middle East after the Soviet Union's fall; it certainly doesn't want to see the influence it worked so hard to regain disappear with a change of power in Damascus.

Also a plus: Much of that recaptured power came at U.S. expense.

Sure, Tillerson's talks will be tough (for example, Ukraine/Crimea and arms control violations), but he goes into his Moscow meets a lot stronger than if Team Trump hadn't made the right call to strike Syria.

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Dr. Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation and is a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He writes a weekly column for the New York Post and frequently appears on FOX, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, NPR and BBC. He is the author of: "A Devil’s Triangle: Terrorism, Weapons of Mass Destruction and Rogue States." Mr. Brookes served in the U.S. Navy and is now a Commander in the naval reserves. He has over 1300 flight hours aboard Navy EP-3 aircraft. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy; the Defense Language Institute; the Naval War College; the Johns Hopkins University; and Georgetown University.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Twitter: @Brookes_Peter

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